Tampa Bay Rays: Why they can win it all

Don Zimmer

A baseball lifer. Zimmer married wife Jean at home plate 61 years ago this August in Elmira, N.Y.; he still puts on the Rays uniform in spring training and at home for games. Zimmer celebrated his 81st birthday in January. His career has brought him to some of the game’s great moments. Started at third base for Brooklyn in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series — it was Zimmer who was pinch-hit for in the top of the sixth by George Shuba (he grounded out with the bases loaded) that brought Sandy Amoros into the game as a defensive replacement, Junior Gilliam moving from left to third. Three batters into the game, Amoros made the catch which saved Brooklyn’s only World Series triumph. Zim was an Amazing Met in 1962, but only in his futility. He went 0-for-34 before getting his first hit. After 52 at-bats he was traded to the Reds. He managed the Red Sox team which blew a huge lead in 1978 and lost a playoff game 5-4 on Bucky Dent’s home run. He managed the Cubs to a division title in 1989, but lost the NLCS to the Giants, who went on to the World Series interrupted by an earthquake. He was at Joe Torre’s side as the Yankee dynasty was restored in the 1990s. As a player, Zimmer played for five teams — Dodgers, Cubs, Mets, Reds and Senators — and was an All-Star for the 1960 Cubs. As a minor-leaguer, Zimmer was so seriously beaned it was thought his career was over before it began. Retired with a career average of .235 and 91 home runs; he homered in double figures five times (15 with Brooklyn Dodgers in ’55, 17 with LA Dodgers in ’58, 13 with Cubs in ’60, 14 with Dodgers and Senators in ’63 and 12 with Seantors in ’64).

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: There’s Moore, of course — rookie pitcher Matt Moore, who has pitched more innings in the postseason (10) than the regular season (9.1), fanned 700 batters in 497.1 minor-league innings and is to pitchers what Bryce Harper is to position players. There’s more, too. Remember the five minor-leaguers the Cubs gave up to get Matt Garza? One was Korean shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, who at age 20 hit .318 and slugged .443 with 24 steals and 42 walks in the Class A Florida State League. The Cubs traded Lee because they had 21-year-old shortstop Starlin Castro. Now Castro faces a sexual assault charge (he denies it) and the Cubs aren’t even sure they want to pay Garza. Lee will likely be a Ray long after Garza is an ex-Cub.

What is this man doing here? The Rays have a talent for resurrecting careers, but it’s hard to save one that’s never existed. Which brings us to fifth outfielder candidate Jeff Salazar. He had 67 pretty good plate appearances — 15 hits and 11 walks — with the Rockies in 2006 (wonder how many of those were at home), but has hit .220 in three trials since and last year hit just .228 in the minors. Salazar can walk, which is a useful skill, but difficult to utilize when the pitchers start throwing strikes. Against him, there’s no reason not to.

What he said: Rays manager John Maddon on the Red Sox banning alcohol in their clubhouse: “We’re not the Boston Red Sox.” What he meant: “Maybe they wouldn’t have blown that big lead last year if they had worried more about what was going on on the field rather than off it.”

Outlook: The Rays won’t be coming from nine games behind this September, because they won’t be nine games behind in September, or at any other time of the year.

The Rays are one of the best teams in baseball, if not the best. The question no longer isn’t whether the Rays can keep up with the Yankees and Red Sox, but whether the Red Sox can keep up with the Yankees and Rays, and the answer is probably not.

The Red Sox will draw more fans — for all their success, the Rays’ attendance figures have plateaued. In fact they lost fans last year, drawing 340,000 fans less than in 2010. The Rays played before 1.5 million at home in 2011, 13th in the American League. They’ve been ninth, 12th, 11th and 13th since they started winning in 2008; before that they were, like the team on the field with but one exception, last seven years in a row.

It makes you wonder if the Rays do win the World Series this year, whether they’ll have a parade or a celebrity shuffleboard tournament to celebrate. Or an expanded Early Bird Special.

The Rays are good enough to do so. They have a young pitching staff that can stand up to the ’69 Mets (Moore, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson vs. Seaver, Koosman and Gentry, plus the Rays also have Jamie Shields and Jeff Niemann), and any other great coming-of-age rotation. They made their typically astute additions to the lineup, they play defense, they run the bases, their piching is deep and the farm system has help.

The Rays were 15th in run scored last year, but they’ll rank higher this year. They replaced Casey Kotchman, who batted .306, with Carlos Pena, whose OPS was 19 points higher than Kotchman’s depite hitting 81 points less; they replaced Johnny Damon (.261, 16 homers, 19 steals) with Luke Scott, who averaged 25 home runs a year from 2008-10 before a bad shoulder limited him to nine in 64 games; they added catcher Jose Molina, whose family has four World Series rings, to replace John Jaso, whose family has none; and they added a platoon piece in the infield in Jeff Keppinger, who has a career .852 OPS vs. lefties.

The Rays will have a lineup for every occasion, even if no two will ever seem the same.

Last year the Rays started 1-8, scoring 11 runs in the 8 losses. Story is, manager Joe Maddon passed out 25 shots of whiskey and had the Rays toast the “best 1-8 team in baseball.” They scored 16 runs and routed the Red Sox the next day, and were 90-63 from there.

They may be toasting again this year, only with something sweeter.

Team song: Morrissey: Nobody Loves Us

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3 Responses to Tampa Bay Rays: Why they can win it all

  1. Avery Gardner says:

    George Shotgun Shuba was mentioned under the Zimmer baseball card. I learned about him while reading “The Boys of Summer” many years ago. He is prominently featured in one of the best baseball books ever written. He was playing catch with the author. Despite being known for a weak arm he was ripping the glove off the author’s hand. A weak armed major leaguer long retired is still monstrous by regular human standards.

    • Agreed and agreed on Boys of Summer. Shuba, the Bishop’s Brother, is still alive, 87 years young. Of the 13 players who had chapters in that great book, only Shuba, Andy Pafko (91) and Carl Erskine (85) are still alive. Don Newcombe is also 85, but was in the military during the two years Roger Kahn covered the team. And for the record, Shotgun Shuba had 8 assists in his career.

  2. Jeff Navin says:

    “The Boys of Summer” was a fascinating book.

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